The Shriving Of Miss Esme Stamp…

Episode Two…Settlement

Joshua Deans. Magistrate. Minister of the Esra Chapel on Bittacy Hill; sat in his black knee-length, gold-buttoned, small-pocketed coat. He warmed himself gently in front of a grey ash, red topped coal fire, lulling comfortably as his damp boots steamed to satisfaction. His chair creaked in time with his arching black narrow-trouser matchstick legs. He dozed in the heat rising rapidly along the closing rails of his slow-moving blood and bathed in the youthful sunshine of his eternal contemplation. There was duck to be served sharply at eight and from his housekeeper’s larder.

A watery eye opened peculiarly and peered carefully at the large pendulum clock that rested majestically from its corner, its ticks swinging melodiously like a bandleader’s arm. It was five o’clock; his son had not been seen since breakfast.

It was the telephone that roused him from his dewy-ness. It rattled, rather than rang, uncertain from his weighted desk of untidy papers and lackadaisical books. Languidly alert, he crossed the small room, sat down, and lifted the hand-piece from its candelabra cradle.

‘Joshua…is that you?’

He groaned a little that sounded like: ‘Yes, what do you want.’

The voice on the other end portrayed a concern that was rare in Dr Hughes. ‘You had better come up to the hall Joshua…right away! The magistrate grizzled further over the cursed time of evening and the disturbance to his demeanor, but his back stiffened and his eyes were awake at the talk of Samuel and a young lady from the school.

The boot-black trap and ebony pony waited by the fat, iron-riveted double-doors, of the gripped-stern walled chapel house, and drew back an indolent hoof over the uneven ground. The animal was bridled in a brass-bound hand by orphaned Edwin; stable boy, handy boy, garden boy and dependent. The collector of a few coins on a silver tray at every Sunday service and the energy behind each heaven flung note from the chapel’s bellowing, life-hobbling pipe organ. He stood, slow and fifteen. In brown leather shoes that were full and ripe, and occupied in disciplined peaceful vacancy. In full throttle the magistrate damned Edwin. Mainly out of absence of his roast duck, and the sudden evening air, and for any other reason he could think of! Seated, he cracked an insistent whip across the unsuspecting animal with the passion of a youthful lion-tamer and raised the spindly thin wheels of the trap into the narrow ruts of the darkening lane and edging bracket woods.

‘Madam, this is not a matter for the police. Pray, that would not be good for anyone concerned!’ Magistrate Deans had settled cross-legged on leather, studded, straight-backed chair, and now watched the two women sat in front of him with a gospel-ringing, raised right eye!

Miss Dyson had hurriedly returned from her brother’s lodgings in Hampstead, and Constance Stamp had been duly summoned from her comfortable home in St. John’s Wood. She sat weepy and reed-like, attractive at forty, with wristfuls of gold bracelets and tight apple breasts that pushed out from a cool dress of blue satin firmness thoughtfully covered with an ankle touching, grey cashmere coat. In their ears the hasty lit fire crackled virgin-like with licking new born flames over its dry old coals. Heavy brown and drawn curtains deadened their voices in an unnatural way and the hung globe of suspended yellow light turned their faces to puce! The small study sagged with its important arrivals and the large oak desk sighed respectfully under Miss Dyson’s authoritative elbows, her fine broad bottom easing over a satisfied chair.

‘How is the child?’ The voice of the preacher had a sardonic tone. ‘I understand she is resting comfortably under the watchful hand of Dr Hughes…and your matron.’ His head rose a little, as if in a motion to a room somewhere above them and his aquiline nose twitched with its own importance.

Miss Dyson narrowed her eyes over him. She flung her words with distaste. ‘Esme is damaged both physically and mentally, but will survive her ordeal! She says she was attacked by a man in Loxton woods. She also says that this man is your son, Mr Deans!’ She turned her head towards Constance Stamp who remained silent and wiped her soaking eyes with a sopping chiffon handkerchief. ‘She was found by her two friends who then fetched the caretaker from the convent. She had been sexually assaulted and badly beaten!’ She was watching his face once more; waiting for his sullen sunken excuse.

‘Pray madam, pray have a care. That sort of barbarous and fallacious charge has much repercussion about it! We have yet to listen to Samuel’s accountability!’ he wriggled in his uncomfortable-ness and the muscles in his dim grey face became taut and unrecognizable.

Miss Dyson lifted herself slowly in her olive-green tweediness’ and stared at Joshua Deans with the contempt one might give an unruly drinking man on a Sunday school outing. Her sizable bosom filled her outdoor jacket and heaved heavily within her dark red cardigan.

‘Where is your son Mr. Deans?’ she demanded.

‘I fear madam…he is occupied elsewhere. I’ve no doubt he will account for himself in due course and be in possession of an acceptable tally.’ The dryness in his crevice worn face showed evidence of annoyance to the point of dismissive-ness. He tucked long thinning silver hair firmly behind tight fitting ears with a bony comb-like finger, and pulled his preacher-black coat around a weasel stomach. He looked up at her from his sad chair with a devious readiness.

Constance Stamp wiped her dipped chestnut eyes once more, and for the last time. Then pushed the refined handkerchief under a bracelet of blue covered wrist and slender rosy-pink arm and stood up. She stood up, smoothed her wrinkled dress to a position well below her knees with palms loyal to her tight-driven thighs and buttoned her cashmere coat. She stepped out in front of the magistrate and brought a forceful avenging hand down across his face with an artful punishing pound of bone flesh on bone flesh!

‘That…!’ she roared with a broiling eloquence, withdrawing her stung, soft, bloodshot-hand from his needle-like, shocked to the core face. ‘…Is just in case we are unable to find your son Mr. Deans.’ She turned her head to the startled headmistress. ‘Now, Miss Dyson would you call the police!’

The magistrate’s hand fell about his scorching face. His eyes had watered with embarrassment and a further nervous finger petted a strand of wayward hair on his forehead. He looked at Constance Stamp like a scolded, difficult child, and sat stock-still, bolt upright, quiet as a mouse, painful as toothache, in his hard unfortunate chair. The tick-tock of the lazy mantle clock passed unnoticed in that dust aired beclouded room of three uneasy souls. Sheepishly and hesitantly, and forming his words with some reluctant care; the unlucky magistrate said,

‘Madam. You consider your child first. Of that, I have no doubt.’ He waited moments for her response, but there was none.

Constance Stamp watched him like an aware cat, her keen body rippled with her after-satisfaction and her bosom moved more calmly now.

His fingers nagged nervously on the worn devoiding elbow rests of his chair, then with a calculated deliberation, he added; ‘I have something to say, please hear me out.’ His head twisted and his narrowed, withholding eyes ran quickly over the two women. ‘I have a solution that would be better for all…yes, far better.’ He regaled with declassed assertion…his mind racing ‘…And of such benefit to you, Mrs. Stamp…and of course, your poor unfortunate daughter!’ He continued: ‘Should Samuel be guilty of this unfortunate act…has yet to be established! Please let me finish!’ he waved a fearful hand in the direction of Constance Stamp’s uncovering mouth. ‘That must be proven in a court of law! However, if such a course were proceeded upon. I’m quite sure, more than sure, that the resulting conclusions, innocent or otherwise in the eyes of others would greatly injure everyone concerned’ He went on: ‘My well-respected position in this community to which numbers look up to with account and the good name of this school that embodies many trusting parents would not profit from such a humiliation.’

His eyes watched Miss Dyson’s quiet listening face with a rat-tailed scrutiny. Then his head moved suddenly and in the direction of Esme’s mother. His lips curled with an almost rising, dancing pleasure. He was feeling on top again. His wizen mind had found a solution. ‘Your daughter’s prospect for a wealthy marital catch would be at pained…risky! He was watchful of her reaction. There was nothing to tell him not to continue. ‘Samuel’s chance for a solicitous position with a reputable banking house in the city would also be lost. All simply for no other reason…than revenge and a misguided sense of justice. No madam, surely you can see that no good would come from any sort of involvement from the police.’ He still furthered: ‘Allow me, if I may, to take the child under my wing, so to speak. To offer at this time and with your guidance of course, some comforts that you may deem are necessary to her spirit and limb. Without prejudice and a pointing finger and without an admission or displacement to anyone.’ His eyes were creasing; ‘I have money enough to pay for her wants!’ The words of his generosity liberated a ministerial tone. He watched the two women as he would a servile gathering of evening sinners.

Constance Stamp looked at him from a face of brooded, broiled distaste. A preciseness. An acute poisoned vein rested on this weasel-faced, whippet-nosed, whimpish heap of a man. She said nothing. Quiet with her detestation. Miss Dyson’s hand fingered the black hand-piece of the candle-like telephone.

‘What exactly are you saying, Deans!’ Constance’s voice suddenly broke from its ropes of contempt with a raging, biting, kicking, searing, scolding, beating, inquisitorial licking charm.

He looked at her slowly, watching her brown moving eyes and thin coral pink lips. He stumbled destructively over his words. ‘It would be my wish, and quite from my own pocket; that your daughter be removed to a private clinic, in order to receive first class medical attention and bed rest, and that when she is fully recovered; resume her education under a private governess of your choosing. I would further propose an endowment substantial in its content to offer her some independence when she is of age.’

He stroked a single strand of hair from his forehead and added; ‘you madam, would also benefit financially from such a course of action.’ His mouth curled out from the dry of his throat, from the length of his judgment, from the slipperiness of his timbre.

Constance Stamp turned on him almost instinctively. ‘You seemed to have engaged yourself in a great deal of thought at such a short notice Parson! Tell me; did you draw upon this idea on your way here this evening?’ Her voice had a mistrustful sneer. She glanced at the quiet seated Miss Dyson, and then turned once more to him.

‘I must confess the matter had crossed my mind somewhat earlier.’There was an almost conquest cry in his tone. ‘I am not one,’ he added, ‘to allow the grass to grow beneath my feet. I would not be where I am today if I did! Further Madam; I am not a parson, but a minister!’ His voice rose with sudden indignation.

‘I don’t care what you call yourself!’ She spat the words out at him with the vengeance of bad meat. ‘It seems you won’t allow anyone to stand in your way of things!’

‘The lord is my companion! It is his claim that directs me in my action. No other presence will dictate to me!’

‘Your beliefs are of no concern to me.’ She threw out his declared unity as one might dispel a bolstering parlor maid. Then very calmly said; ‘So, you want to buy us off?’

‘Pray madam…not the words I would use.’ He shifted uneasy once more, waiting on her aggressiveness. There was none.

‘You may pray Mr. Deans. I will take your money, and I will tell you why. I too, doubt the outcome of any legal matter. There is not a court in the country that would convict your son without an independent witness! Women today have a very poor say in many matters, yet your son should be brought to account for his actions. But my thoughts are for my daughter and for her future. A future no less dominated by self-interested males like yourself. Therefore my concerns are for her. Yes! I will take your blood money! And without hesitation, because that will be my sweet revenge on you and your son. I have no pity for either of you. Only contempt for your existence. But rest assured; if this matter should ever be aired to anyone…anyone at all: I will come upon you and your son with the public disgrace you so rightly deserve!’

His abstract head dislocated in his potato-starch shirt collar and crackled pointlessly with the acquiring victory. Outside the coldness of that April room…willow leaves flickered ireful and shut their ears to a descending dusk.

Miss Dyson rose silently, fumbling for the switch on her small irksome table lamp and looked at Constance Stamp uncomfortably. She brushed a loose blob of brown hair that had disobediently dropped across her forehead, and said with a certain feebleness; ‘There is the doctor of course.’

Joshua Deans looked at her from the acuteness of his narrow faced. A sudden irritation had returned to it. ‘The doctor and I, have known each other for many years.’ he groaned the words almost uninterestedly. ‘You can be assured the doctor will only have the utmost consideration for the girl’s health and future well being. He is no radical, Miss Dyson.’

‘Radical is not the word I would have chosen Mr. Deans. There is such a thing as respect for what is right and wrong.’ She paused thoughtfully at his once more soundlessness, then added; ‘Perhaps you are right. Perhaps, it would be better not to drag Esme through the distress of a fruitless and bruising trial.’ Her eyelids lifted a little. ‘Your offer may be best for her!’

‘The best for everyone!’ he declared, ‘like the rising wind from the womb of the earth creeping through briars and whipping the hills of the sloping grey-green grassy, still-cold pagan woods of deep dark desperations that measure the soul of the sinning sinner’ he added

Miss Dyson moved head toward the quiet listening woman. ‘I’m sure Mrs. Stamp would not differ?’

‘I love my daughter very much and of course I would want only what is best for her. You are a cunning and conniving man, Mr. Deans…regretfully, you are right in your assumptions.’ Constance looked at the magistrate with the closing indignation of that preserved, last given, show of dislike.

He bristled as if quickly thrown into energy. ‘Well, Mrs. Stamp,’ he said in his newly-dressed, halo soaking benevolence. ‘All that remains for us is to settle the details!’

About Patrick

a photographer, writer and blogger, a studio and press photographer since the mid 1960's, first published writings in 1974
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